Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 29, 2007
Legally Blonde The Musical Music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Book by Heather Hach. Based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Motion Picture. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Ken Posner and Paul Miller. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Animal Trainer William Berloni. Orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Arrangements by Laurence O’Keefe and James Sampliner. Starring Laura Bell Bundy, Christian Borle, Orfeh, Richard H. Blake, Kate Shindle, Nikki Snelson, and Michael Rupert. With Annaleigh Ashford, April Berry, Paul Canaan, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Beth Curry, Tracy Jai Edwards, Amber Efé, Gaelen Gilliland, Jason Gillman, Beck Gulsvig, Rod Harrselson, Manuel Herrera, Natalie Joy Johnson, Andy Karl, Nick Kenkel, Michelle Kittrell, Leslie Kritzer, DeQuina Moore, Rusty Mowery, Kevin Pariseau, Matthew Risch, Jason Patrick Sands, Noah Weisberg, Kate Wetherhead.
The gentle wintergreen flavor of the over-the-counter medicine might be all that can soothe the troubled stomach Legally Blonde threatens to cause. Even those who’ve built up their resistance with a steady diet of mediocre film-to-stage adaptations in recent years might find themselves tested by this one which, as written by Heather Hach (book) and Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin (music and lyrics) and directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, is one of the most negligible and least entertaining.
This is somewhat surprising given the show’s pedigree. The 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon, on which the show is closely based (both also cite as a source Amanda Brown’s novel), was a smartly conceived, cast, and produced musing on what would happen if a fashion-obsessed sorority girl named Elle Woods was accepted into Harvard Law School. Despite a slight, credibility-straining storyline, brisk writing and Witherspoon’s glowing and sensitive portrayal of Elle made it one of the most sparkling young-adult comedies in recent memory.
On the theatre side, Hach is untested (her biggest credit is the screenplay for the 2003 iteration of Freaky Friday), but O’Keefe and Benjamin's solid credentials range from the lively Off-Broadway Bat Boy (him) to the Gilbert & Sullivan adaptation Pirates! (her) and the TheatreworksUSA musicals Sarah, Plain and Tall, Cam Jansen, and The Mice (both). Mitchell’s a popular Broadway fixture who won a Tony for choreographing the 2004 revival of La Cage aux Folles and is now making his directorial debut.
Not one of them, however, has brought to the stage any of what gave the movie its satisfyingly spicy zing. Instead, they’ve transformed a uniquely flavored film into yet another in a line of pre-chewed musicals like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Wedding Singer, and High Fidelity that hardly cry out for emulation. The result is a astonishingly gleeful mess of a show, where the changes made (which are minor) and the songs written (which are even more minor) detract from rather than enhance the film’s characters and comedic verve.
Elle (Laura Bell Bundy) is now less an energetic and ambitious go-getter than a generic musical heroine who derives her poise and personality almost exclusively from her wardrobe. She’s rather predictably surrounded by upwardly mobile ex-boyfriend Warner (Richard H. Blake), whom she went to Harvard to win back; scruffy but well-meaning teaching assistant Emmett (Christian Borle), who wants to help her achieve her dreams; and the ethically challenged professor (Michael Rupert) who introduces her to the seamier side of law. None of these have been sketched as to deny their creaky archetypal roots, and they’re all forever at war with a score interrupting Hach’s harmless but faithful adaptation for reasons spotty enough to make many jukebox musicals (no, not Mamma Mia!) look sensible by comparison.
Only one song, “Take It Like a Man,” in which Elle repays Emmett’s kindness with a fashion makeover, feels germane to the proceedings. Far more common are the likes of Elle’s entrance essay (“What You Want”), which becomes a parade in the Harvard admissions office, or a song called "Ireland" for Elle’s beautician friend Paulette (Orfeh) that exists only to inspire an extraneous second-act step-dancing parody. Worse, three major set-piece production numbers - the first act finale “So Much Better,” “Bend and Snap!” (instructing how retrieving dropped items can attract men), and the courtroom smackdown “There! Right There!” - need 10 minutes between them to garner fewer laughs than the movie manages in roughly 10 seconds.
Mitchell’s staging is so well-oiled, it could prove responsible for skyrocketing gasoline prices this summer. But his dances are all cheerleader and no cheer, only adding to the bloated feeling the misguided score already imparts. Gregg Barnes’s costumes are brightly collegiate and Ken Posner and Paul Miller’s lights effective, but David Rockwell’s scenery reduces rich California and Harvard locales to a series of minimalistic drops against a continually cloudy cyclorama and devoid of all charm.
Neither is charm especially desired from most of the leads, particularly Bundy. She’s likeable in the ho-hum way so many young performers today are: She has no trouble meeting her role’s singing and dancing demands, but plows through the role with a robotic energy and mechanical smile that reinforce Elle’s limitations instead of suggesting a more complicated person underneath. Whereas Witherspoon made a smooth transition from deceptively smart girl to resourceful woman, Bundy treats the entire role with the plastic seriousness of an audition for Wicked. (Which, for the record, she’s already been in.)
To find the show’s real highlights, you must look farther down the cast list: Chico and Chloe, respectively playing Elle’s Chihuahua Bruiser and Paulette’s bulldog Rufus, bring some much-needed warmth and spontaneity to the show; Leslie Kritzer is brilliant but wasted as the leader of a Greek chorus of Elle’s sorority sisters; and Natalie Joy Johnson lives up to her middle name as a hilarious militant lesbian law student.
Finally, there’s Kate Shindle, who brings a fierce, icy fire to the potentially thankless role of Warner’s new flame, Vivienne. A former Miss America and ascending stage star in her own right, Shindle knows how to command the stage and comport herself in chaotic surroundings, talents she exercises to the fullest here. She’s a superb singer, too: Her high-energy belting at the end of the otherwise rambling title song is the show’s only exciting moment and the best reason I can think of to buy a ticket.
Of course, you’re supposed to spend most of the show rooting against Vivienne, but no matter: If blondes really do have the most fun, at least brunette Shindle provides a fair amount of her own. The same can’t be said of much else in Legally Blonde.